Green, but Clean: Breaking the Lawn-Care Pesticide Cycle

By Bradley, Jane M. | E Magazine, May-June 2004 | Go to article overview

Green, but Clean: Breaking the Lawn-Care Pesticide Cycle


Bradley, Jane M., E Magazine


Elise Craig lives in a garden apartment in Portland, Oregon, where children roll in the grass and run barefoot across lawns in the summer light. A year ago, she realized that whenever the landlord spread lawn-care chemicals on the grass, her six-year-old son, Michael, lost bowel and bladder control for weeks afterward.

"Michael's symptoms came back every time they treated the lawn," says Craig. "They told us it was safe after a day, so I kept him off the grass for a week or two. Michael still got sick. We were ultimately successful in organizing our community to go organic, but we are about to move, and I may face this battle in our new home with new neighbors."

In Portland, where Craig organized teams of weed-pulling parents at her son's school (with help from a principal who's an organic farmer), the city has put up billboards that say, "Is Your Lawn Chemical-Free? Maybe It Should Be."

Each year, Americans apply more than 80 million pounds of chemical products--including herbicides, insecticides and fungicides--to their lawns and gardens.

Risky Roulette

Homeowners often don't realize the myriad health hazards associated with lawn-care pesticides sold under such innocuous names as Weed & Feed and Bug-B-Gon. These products contain pesticides such as 2,4-D (linked to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma) and MCPP (associated with soft-tissue cancers).

People think the government would warn them if these widely sold chemicals were known to damage their nervous systems, harm fetuses or give them cancer. None of these long-term adverse health effects are required by law to be listed on product labels.

"Forty years ago, in the enormously praised and fiercely criticized book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson demonstrated the dangers of pesticides," says H. Patricia Hynes, director of the Urban Environmental Health Initiative at Boston University and author of The Recurring Silent Spring. "Lawn chemical usage has nearly doubled since 1964."

Pesticides used solely on lawns are not required to undergo the same rigorous testing for long-term health effects as those used on food. No federal studies have assessed the safety of lawn-care chemicals in combination, as most are sold. Because of industry lobbying, the identities of "inert ingredients" are protected as trade secrets under federal law. Pesticides may contain up to 99 percent inert ingredients, some of which are suspected carcinogens, while others are linked to nervous system disorders, liver and kidney damage and birth defects. …

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